Thesiger in Africa

December 14 2010

Alexander Maitland on a new book, Wilfred Thesiger in Africa. Various contributors. No text by Thesiger, but his African photographs are there and in an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum which runs until June 5 2011.

See also Thesiger’s The Life of My Choice (1987), My Kenya Days (1994) and The Danakil Diary: Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930-34 (1996).

My Kenya Days (old-fashioned title for a book in 1994) took us to the eve of his return to London, though he said at the end of it that he hoped to die in Kenya.

No modern explorer travelled as much or so austerely or retreated to comfort so rarely, or wrote so well when he did retreat or was a better photographer. When he travelled, his camera and, in some cases, medicines, but not mainly for himself, were the only possessions which distinguished him from his local companions. No traveller was less corrupted by voyeurism or careerism.

None has shown such detestation of modern life, and contempt for its pampered ways, without being a dropout or in any way a sentimentalist. He was a proud (his word) Englishman who spent little time in England. He knew that people, including himself, were happier in the old ways of life and that the Earth was being ruined. The British Empire would serve (he perhaps did not say this explicitly), where it ruled, as a guarantor of stasis.

During the war, Thesiger fought with the Sudan Defence Force, organising the Abyssinian resistance to the Italians, and later served with the Special Operations Executive in Syria and the Special Air Service during the North African Campaign.

When man landed on the moon, Thesiger was at Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Samburu youth, near Maralal, Kenya, 1977

Previous posts:

Thesiger at 100

Thesiger’s question.

9 Responses to “Thesiger in Africa”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Thesiger believed in the justice and fairness of the British Empire. He was a political reactionary. The implication (in his earlier years) was that it should rule and that the traditional societies under it should continue to live in the traditional way, because modern civilisation would bring them more harm than good.

    He was proud of the way the Empire was dissolved. The post-colonial wars in Africa damaged old ways of life more than anything that the British had done.


  2. It’s really a shame, the way the “neo-Victorian” label stuck to Thesiger. It’s dismissive, belittling, willfully ignorant.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Thesiger’s experience of traditional societies suggests something different from the toiling masses interpretation of history, which tells us that the human lot was a miserable one until recently. On the other hand, he engaged with herdsmen and nomads, not peasants. (One must blur that distinction a little, of course.) Their lives were hard in the extreme, but not merely miserable. What he never does is to romanticise the simple life.

    • davidderrick Says:

      Yet a typical anti-Thesiger view is here:

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/1994/apr/23/featuresreviews.guardianreview

      Incidentally, Thesiger did not say that lions were “natural man-eaters”. He says the exact opposite.

      • richard Says:

        “the one time Thesiger entered the modern world wholeheartedly was as a professional killer for the SAS in the Western Desert during the second world war, and then only to get revenge on the Italians for their ousting of Selassie in 1936, not because of any general anti-fascist feeling.”

        I should be intrigued to read the same reviewer’s views on Eastern Approaches. Is it only defensible to join the SAS if one feels generally anti-fascist, I wonder? Should one (if one is a member of the English Establishment) have no attachment to Haile Selassi?

        What a tedious review.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    I have heard My Kenya Days called evidence of senility. I did not see it that way. Perhaps I need to look again.


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